DAVID COPPERFIELD, Steppenwolf Theatre Company. British director Giles Havergal’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’s novel, which he’s also staged, is earnest, well acted, handsomely designed, and briskly paced. But it’s not terribly exciting considering the original’s emotional range. Rarely does it display the vitality of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s unforgettable Nicholas Nickleby or the literary adaptations that thrilled Chicago audiences at Stuart Gordon’s old Organic Theater or Paul Sills’s Story Theater. Nor does anything here approach the originality of Havergal’s Travels With My Aunt, which turned Graham Greene’s novel into a showcase for four actors.
The opening hints at the innovative show this might have been: in a choral-speaking prelude that communicates the theme of David’s self-discovery, the characters utter the many names by which the hero is addressed (“Davy,” “Daisy,” “Doady,” “Trotwood”). But generally this is standard memory-play stuff, as the mature David recounts the events of his life while observing his younger self experience them.
The evening’s great strength is Jim True-Frost as the adult David; he delivers the narration’s long, arcing phrases with utter clarity and a perfect balance of emotion and distance. Molly Regan is vivid as David’s eccentric Aunt Betsey, and Jay Whittaker gives a brilliantly stylized portrayal of David’s unctuous nemesis, the “‘umble” Uriah Heep. The other actors are competent but generally lack the rich, quirky personalities Dickens gave his characters, evident in many film and TV versions of this familiar work. And one can’t help but wonder at the all-white cast given Chicago theater’s racial diversity and Dickens’s universality, demonstrated by the Goodman’s multicultural productions of A Christmas Carol.